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How to Become Comfortable with the Uncomfortable Subject of Death: An Incomplete Guide

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Death is part of the process and not the end. The appreciation of death and its transformation is a prerequisite for living a joyful life now. Death should not be seen as the required enemy so that you can delight in this life.

We discuss death in our latest episode of No Expectations. Listen Here

Death is one of the most universal and inevitable realities of human existence, yet it is also one of the most feared and avoided topics. Many people struggle with death anxiety, which is the fear or dread of dying or being dead. Death anxiety can affect our mental and physical health, our relationships, our choices, and our quality of life. How can we overcome this anxiety and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable subject of death?

One way to approach this challenge is to adopt a spiritual perspective on death. Spirituality can be defined as a sense of connection to something larger than oneself, such as a higher power, a cosmic order, a divine purpose, or a transcendent reality. Spirituality can help us cope with death anxiety by providing us with meaning, hope, peace, acceptance, and transcendence.

Ram Dass meditates in San Francisco in January 1970.

Ram Dass was a spiritual teacher who wrote many books and gave many lectures on the process of conscious death and dying. He believed that death is our greatest challenge as well as our greatest spiritual opportunity. He encouraged us to make peace with death, to see it as the culminating adventure of this adventure called life. He also taught us how to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and love for ourselves and others in the face of death.

"Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it." - Ram Dass

Here are some spiritual practices, thoughts, and principles that can help us become more comfortable with death:

Change the Narrative

If we can welcome the end of this life with the acceptance as inevitable, then we begin to strip it of its power over us. Death should not be seen as the required enemy so that you can delight in this life.

In the Hindu tradition, there is the belief that there are four phases to a person's life. The four stages of life are meant to provide a framework for personal growth, social duty, and spiritual fulfillment.

  1. Brahmacharya: stage of the student who lives with a guru and learns the scriptures, sciences, and skills for his future life. Until about the age of 25.

  2. Grihastha: stage of the householder, who marries and raises a family, earns a living, and contributes to society. He also pursues wealth, pleasure, and virtue within the limits of dharma until about the age of 50.

  3. Vanaprastha: stage of the retiree, who withdraws from worldly affairs and hands over his responsibilities to the next generation. He also devotes more time to spiritual pursuits, such as meditation, pilgrimage, or charity. This lasts until about the age of 75.

  4. Sannyasa: This is the stage of the renunciant, who renounces all attachments and possessions and lives a life of simplicity, detachment, and contemplation. He also seeks liberation from the cycle of birth and death (samsara). This stage lasts until death.

In Hinduism, death is also seen as a part of the cycle of life, which involves reincarnation according to one’s karma. Hindus believe that the soul (atman) is eternal and transmigrates from one body to another until it attains union with the supreme reality (Brahman). Hindus perform rituals and ceremonies to honor the dead and to help them transition to the next life.

Face It

To overcome our fear of death, we must face it and be around it. Our Western culture has the tendency to hide the dying or dead from the living. We consider death the enemy. Death is considered a failure from a modern medical point of view. "We did everything we could" is a common, overly-used cliche on doctor TV dramas as if a mortal doctor could ever have the knowledge or technology to outwit the universe. When someone is ready to give in and die, whether to old age or disease, we may greedily ask them to "hold on." Giving in to the timeless tide of death is not failure.

Sitting and being in the presence of the dying. This might sound like an extreme form of exposure therapy, but it can be a cathartic way to face our fear of death while helping others make their peaceful transformation.

"Death makes us soulful. It connects us with life and the living." - Andrew H. Housley

Throughout the world, cultures revere the dead. The Toraja people of Indonesia believe that death is not a sudden event but a gradual process. The Toraja do not bury their dead immediately after they die but keep them in their homes for months or even years, treating them as if they were still alive.

A common practice of Tibetian Buddhists is the sky burial - a way of sending their loved ones’ souls toward heaven. In this ritual, bodies are left outside, often cut into pieces, for birds or other animals to devour.

Jazz Funerals in New Orleans is a two-part musical celebration of life and death that begins with a procession led by a brass band that plays somber music and culminates with the "cutting loose" after the burial, where the band plays more lively music, and the crowd joins in with singing and dancing.

Creating Meaning

When we find meaning in our lives, we feel that we have contributed something valuable to the world and that we have fulfilled our potential. Meaning can be found in various ways, such as through work, relationships, hobbies, passions, service, learning, or creativity. To create meaning in your life, ask yourself what matters most to you, what makes you happy, what gives you a sense of purpose, and what legacy you want to leave behind.

Accept the Change

Zen Master Taisen Deshimaru

The spiritual work we perform now prepares us for what's next, the thing we can't control - the end of this life. This is called the "inner work," and it can take many forms. Zen master Taisen Deshimaru was a Japanese Zen teacher who brought Zen Buddhism to Europe in the 1960s and spoke often on the topic. Death is not a separate or opposite phenomenon from life but a part of it. Deshimaru taught that life and death are not dualistic concepts but interdependent and inseparable aspects of reality. He said that life and death are like two sides of the same coin, or like the inhaling and exhaling of the breath. He said: "The exhalation is deep and long, the inhalation short and steady. Breathing is the connecting link between the conscious and the subconscious, between body and mind. In fact, the ability to control our body and mind and to change our lives, our karma, depends upon this breathing."

Here are a few Inner Work techniques:

  1. Meditation: Meditation is the practice of focusing one’s attention on a chosen object, such as the breath, a mantra, a sound, or a sensation. Meditation can help us to calm our mind, increase our awareness, and access our inner wisdom. Meditation can also help us to cultivate compassion, gratitude, and love for ourselves and others.

  2. Journaling: Journaling is a practice of writing down one’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and insights. Journaling can help us to express ourselves, reflect on our life, and gain clarity and perspective.

  3. Body Work: is a practice of paying attention to and caring for our physical body. Our body is not separate from our mind and spirit; it is a reflection of our inner state and a source of wisdom and energy. Mindfully working out or performing yoga asanas is a great way to connect to physical bodies.

  4. Pranayama: the practice of controlling or regulating the breath through various techniques and exercises. Pranayama is an important part of yoga, as it can enhance the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of the postures and meditation. Pranayama can also help you to relax, reduce stress, improve your health, and connect with your inner energy or life force.

  5. Karmic Work: Karma can be positive or negative, depending on the nature of your actions. Positive karma is the result of actions that are motivated by love, compassion, generosity, or wisdom. Negative karma is the result of actions that are motivated by hatred, greed, selfishness, or ignorance. Karma means "action," and every action has a consequence, and that consequence depends on the intention behind the action.

A Shift in Priorities

Our human birth is an opportunity to do incredible work. Death can inspire us to be more mindful and intentional about how we spend our time and energy. When we realize that our time is limited and precious, we can focus on what is truly important and meaningful to us and let go of what is trivial and distracting. Death can also motivate us to pursue our dreams and goals, to express our gratitude and love, to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and to enjoy the present moment.

“I am an artist at living – my work of art is my life.” -D.T. Suzuki

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

If we look within the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we'll find a collection of texts that guide the consciousness of the deceased through the intermediate state (bardo) between death and rebirth. It emphasizes that death is not the end of existence but a transition to a new cycle of life. Death can be an opportunity for liberation from the cycle of suffering (samsara) if one can realize one’s true nature and merge with it. Alternatively, death can be a chance for a better rebirth. Contrary to the title, the book is not only a guide for the dead but also a source of wisdom and inspiration for the living. It teaches us to face death with courage, awareness, and compassion and to live our lives with meaning, purpose, and joy. It also reminds us of the impermanence and preciousness of life and encourages us to practice meditation, morality, and kindness.

Authentic Being

Authenticity is the feeling that one is being one’s true self. Authenticity requires aligning our values, preferences, goals, decisions, and actions with our inner self. When we are authentic, we are honest with ourselves and others, we respect our needs and feelings, we honor our strengths and weaknesses, we follow our intuition and passions, and we live according to our own standards and expectations. Authenticity can help us cope with death anxiety by increasing our self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-expression, and self-transcendence. To be more authentic in your life, ask yourself who you really are, what you really want, how you really feel, and what you really need.

  1. Generativity: Generativity is the desire to invest in the well-being of the younger generation through involvement in teaching, mentoring, volunteering, or other creative contributions. Generativity can help us cope with death anxiety by providing us with a sense of symbolic immortality, which is the belief that we will live on through our offspring, our work, our ideas, our values, or our influence. Generativity can also give us a sense of fulfillment, satisfaction, and gratitude for having made a positive difference in the world. To practice generativity in your life, ask yourself how you can share your wisdom, experience, skills, talents, or resources with others, especially those who are younger or less fortunate than you.

  2. An Attitude of Acceptance: Acceptance is the ability to embrace reality as it is without denying, resisting, or judging it. Acceptance can help us cope with death anxiety by reducing our fear, anger, sadness, or guilt about dying or being dead. Acceptance can also help us appreciate the preciousness and impermanence of life and cherish every moment as a gift. Acceptance does not mean giving up or resigning ourselves to fate but rather acknowledging and embracing what is beyond our control and focusing on what we can control. To cultivate acceptance in your life, ask yourself what you can and cannot change about your situation and how you can make peace with both.

Make Peace with Death

All the inner work, self-study, and journey through the stages of life have prepared you for the great change - the shedding of the "skinsuit," or the removing of the "tight shoe," as Dass called it. At that moment, you should hope to find yourself neither pushing nor pulling to this life. Your attraction to this life and aversion to death that keeps you holding on has been laid bare.

The important thing to remember is that we should live each moment as if it's our last. Always be mindful of our thoughts, words, and actions because it is those last things before we die that aim our trajectory for what's next.

Death is a natural and inevitable part of life, but it does not have to be a source of constant fear and anxiety. By adopting a spiritual perspective on death, we can learn to accept, appreciate, and transcend this reality and to live more fully, authentically, and meaningfully in the present. Death can be a catalyst for personal growth, transformation, and liberation if we are willing to face it with courage, wisdom, and compassion.

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